Permaculture Gardening in a Wildlife Environment – the Real Meaning of Food Security (South Africa)

There are many challenges involved in building your own permaculture garden. The choice to avoid inorganic fertilizers and pesticides makes the art of gardening a balancing act which is trouble enough on its own. However, what happens when your garden is located in an area naturally inhabited by wild animals? Even living in an urban environment, one may find that protecting your garden from veggie munching critters is as important as digging and mulching. Our garden is located in an isolated wilderness area in South Africa which is also home to a number of these creatures. Conventional methods for dealing with this problem involve shooting and poisoning, two options that are not on our agenda. Therefore we have had to come up with some creative ways to protect our garden from being ravaged by wild beasts.

Amongst the more camera-shy species (i.e. those not pictured above) are a number of wild antelope, porcupines and bush-pig (who will dig furiously under your defenses) as well as scrub hares and other small rodents. Of these, the worst by far are the monkeys. Monkeys and humans have always had a complicated relationship throughout history and there are few human settlements that have learned to live in harmony with these expert little thieves. They are notorious for stalking your garden, always posting a lookout to warn them of your approach. They are also experts at finding the flaws in your fortifications and given time they will find their way through the smallest gaps and into your veggies. Baboons are just as resourceful but much stronger and can do some real damage if they get a chance. Porcupines and bush pigs are tremendous diggers and they love root vegetables. A porcupine can smell water in a garden hose and is not opposed to shredding it open for a midnight drink. Apart from being a huge pest to anyone trying to grow sweet potatoes, bush pigs are potentially dangerous and not the kind of creature you want lurking about your garden at night.

So now that I have laid out the challenges, how do we go about dealing with them? The best defense against animal invasion is a solid caged-in garden with a covered roof. Ours was constructed on a shoe-string budget, using mostly scavenged materials. Now, whilst I am a great proponent of using recycled materials, the only caution is that you want a very strong structure and therefore sometimes it helps to buy new materials where you can. The basic structure was constructed from bamboo poles which were harvested from a patch we have growing on the farm (it’s always great to grow your own building materials) and old fence wire which we salvaged from livestock fences that were removed on our farm. This kind of fencing is usually quite easy to get hold of if you live in a rural area but the only problem with it is that the gaps between the wires are quite large. I managed to get around this problem by using chicken wire for the bottom row of fencing. It might be advisable to use chicken wire for the whole structure but I prefer a row at the bottom with the larger wire on top as this will prevent most rabbits and small rodents from getting in but it still allows the birds to get into the cage and eat bugs.

Above you can see the first part of the structure being erected. Note the use of a layer of stones around the base of the fence. This closes the gaps between the bottom of the fence and the ground and discourages animals from digging into your garden. I later added to this by packing thorn bushes around the outside so that the porcupine would not be able to get close enough to dig. After a time, the vegetation on the outside of the cage grows thick from all the watering and this also provides a good barrier. The bamboo poles are not that strong and don’t last forever but I was using what was available at the time. We got around this problem by anchoring them with iron fence spikes. Working with wire can be a little tricky as you may find that after all your efforts, the wire does not pull together tightly and this can create gaps. The best way around this is to use a wire stretcher, but if you don’t have one at hand then it helps to anchor the corners with a length of wire attached to a peg in the ground. A trick for tightening loose wires is to use a double line, and then twisting a stick onto the middle until the wire is taut.

The roof was covered with shade cloth — some odd pieces that I salvaged from an old patio. Again if you want super strength and durability then the best is to buy new. I used a fairly shady shade cloth as the climate here is very hot and dry, but in a more temperate climate it is recommended to only use 10% or 20% shaded netting. You can also use bird netting if it is strong enough to handle being walked over by monkeys, or even a bit of the clear plastic used for growing tunnels can be put on top of the shade cloth, as this will protect your plants from frost and cold. It is also recommended that the roof is also covered with fencing, however I did not have enough to go this far and did not find it necessary. I closed the gaps on the edges with some fencing because the shade cloth did not reach but it has held out so far against the onslaught of monkeys and other animals. I am not 100% convinced of its efficiency with regard to baboons as I have not had many encounters with them but if you live in an area where there are no baboons then it should be enough just to cover up with shade cloth.

Once my garden was suitably caged-in, I proceeded with the gardening part of the project. I found an old cow bell and hung it from the roof so that I would be warned if the monkeys were invading. I don’t really have to worry too much about them but I don’t like to give them the opportunity to find the flaws in my handiwork You can be really creative here, hanging old pieces of metal from the cross bars or even using wind chimes, as long as they aren’t too noisy. A great tip I learned from a friend who keeps bees is to set up your bee box next to the fence with a wire connecting the bee box and the fence. Any disturbances — for example a baboon jumping over the fence — will shake the bee box and send them out to attack the invaders. This has been known to deter elephants from vegetable gardens as they will only try it once and they will never return after that. The only problem is that you might want to avoid your garden for the rest of the day as the bees may still be quite angry….

Lastly it is important to make sure that the cage door is properly sealed and there are no gaps when it is closed. If you live in a baboon- or monkey-infested area, then be sure to make it difficult to open as these guys are pretty sharp when it comes to figuring out latches and locks. Some of my neighbors prefer to have a closed up cage that can be opened by unhooking some of the fence and entering that way. This makes it confusing for them to find the entrance. I made a simple wire door in a bamboo frame which latches closed with wire hooks. This seems to work well because the bamboo is too heavy for the monkeys to move themselves and it sits flush against the cage wall.

The next step is growing your vegetables. Beware of the fact that some of your veggies may grow quite close to the cage wall and animals may still be able to reach into the cage by sticking an arm through the wires and grabbing what they can. I have caught a monkey in the act of doing this but that is what I would consider to be an acceptable loss as I have not sustained much damage to my garden since erecting the cage. I like to grow granadillas on the fence as their fruit is well hidden under the foliage and often droops down into the cage but any fruiting vine will make your cage look beautiful and provide you some extra space for growing. The rest is all about what you choose to do with the space. I have always believed that a good garden doesn’t need a lot of space — this cage being only 6m x 6m. I do feel that it could be bigger but only because it’s nice to be able to rotate your garden from time to time or grow a green manure crop on one side for a year in order to let the soil replenish itself.


  1. Hi Melloson

    Thanks for sharing this unique experience.

    People who have issues with monkeys in semi-urban environments here in Durban sometimes find that placing a few realistic looking rubber-snakes around the place can help keep them away or at least make them a tad more nervous about approaching. I’m not sure if this would work with your bush-ready troop? Maybe a large one hung up on top of the cage….moved every so often to keep them guessing?

    Also, as a long-term solution is there maybe an easily accessible, easily-maintained local fruit tree suited to the climate and the monkey/baboon preferences that could be interspersed around your inner zones as a decoy: Rubber snakes + safer options = happy primates. This might even work with greedy humans if they crop up…..who knows :)

  2. I really enjoyed this post. I have only seen monkeys in a zoo. I cannot imagine what it would be like to have to contend with them in my garden. Sorry, but the novelty would make me almost welcome them! But I suppose that would wear off quickly and the cage look good. So I guess you have to look at your vegetables in a zoo of sorts.

  3. If one of the ethics of Permaculture is “fair share” then perhaps planting fruits on border hedges or fences is appropriate to keep baboons and monkeys from your main garden crop.

  4. Very cool article! many useful tricks I will for sure one day apply. And I agree Tony, and as I have similar land that i’ll be working on in Maasai Mara in the future (brother-in-law’s land, i’m not one of the land-grabbers). I did consider planting edible trees for the animals along the fence, just am not sure if they’ll be satisfied with that, or will be tempted even more to find out exactly what’s behind the fence?! Still think I will tho, combined with many cacti n thick bush, as would be nice to share a bit, even with passers-by.
    but my issue, among all of these animals, is elephants. Anyone out there have experience with them? The bee tip was really cool!! I also know of trenches, which i thought of integrating into a swales n canals system somehow.

  5. Excellent article Mell. Thanks for sharing your experience. This is the way of the future for us all.

    Your efforts have paid off and I’ve been lucky to taste some of the produce you’ve grown and can’t wait to see the next generation!

    Keep experimenting.

  6. Steven, I had many years ago a friend, Ron Beaton, who farmed wheat, maize and sunflower just north of the Mara. He with his son is providing high-end tourist safaris there. You might know him. Seek his advice. He tried control shooting and electric fences but the elephants and buffalo knocked them down.

    The traditional method is thorny fences but trenches sound a good idea particularly if you can use them for swales or mini dams.

    Would like to visit you at some time.

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